It is a bit of a shock to see Mark McGuire release an acoustic record. Admittedly, given his playing style on show both on the Emeralds back catalog and his own solo material, the idea of him attempting to hang with the Andy McKees and Daniel Bachmans of the modern acoustic guitar landscape is not out of the realm of possibility. Yet for someone who broke out as the only guitarist in an otherwise synth-centric band that focused on mixing krautrock, ambient music, kosmiche and new age, and whose solo career has thus far followed the same trajectory, it’s an unexpected twist on new album Ideas of Beginnings.
Granted, the connection is there via the new age influence. Arriving at new age through synth playing can lead a player through a wide variety of players and genres, but for guitarists the in-roads are much narrower; Michael Hedges is the undisputed god of the style, focusing primarily on virtuosic acoustic guitar playing, and is often cited as one of the primary influences on the current crop that includes that acclaimed McKee. So, a new age player breaking free of the synths to deliver complex, nuanced solo acoustic guitar pieces isn’t terribly shocking in that regard.
And, it should be said, they are good pieces. The steel of the strings has that ping, the brightness of the unwound strings, the harsh percussive tack of fingers slapping into the strings to mute them, the warmth of the lower courses. McGuire steers away from overly strummy stuff, focusing instead on layers of picked and plucked strings, which gives the pieces both an airiness and tactility that makes following them a delight. It could be read as perhaps a bit saccharine to some, as it does almost sound like the soundtrack to a watercolor-painted British children’s cartoon about fields and streams and trees at some points, but that’s also one of the distinct pleasures of this type of guitar music; a brief and unapologetic indulgence in something meant to be gorgeous and immediately image/mood-evocative.
The issue with the songs on Ideas of Beginnings is their brevity. Many of the pieces feel like they are beginning to establish themselves before the strings fall silent; for a moment, the ear tricks you into thinking a recapitulation is about to come, some standard structure, but no, it is a new piece now. Of the acoustic tracks, “Skipping Stone” comes the closest to feeling like a complete track, the slowly plucked and picked single-note leads a parallel to a singing voice over the gentle open strumming. It returns to phrases and licks enough to feel as though it is distinctly building thoughts, responding to thoughts, tying new phrases to old as answers to questions. The briefness of the other tracks (most hover around a minute and a half) is answered by “Smiling From Up North,” the longest of the acoustic tracks at three minutes flat, which finds itself unwound and aimless near its end.
The acoustic side often feels like incomplete but worthwhile thoughts. The insistent pluck of the bass strings on “Late Summer Early Evening” implies a Mount Eerie/Microphones-style song-oriented acoustic playing with a touch more new age rustic folk virtuosity is not out of bounds for McGuire. It is a side that both begins and ends unceremoniously, which is a shame given how pleasurable they are and what unique identity they have within his body of work thus far.
Which leads to the electric side. There is comparatively far less to say about the closing four tracks of Ideas of Beginnings, which sound so much like his other work, including the full disc-worth of electric guitar-driven ambient and kosmiche tunes he released last year under the title Vision Upon Purpose. None of the tracks are as intense as “Genetic” from Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here? or “The Instinct” from McGuire’s solo record Along the Way. The same synesthetic palette is at work, all blues and yellows, warm depths and bright rolling staccato runs. It is also, unfortunately, for all its pleasure, the same sounds that he wielded within Emeralds and which led his solo records to at times feel like merely extensions of that defunct group’s work. This was an issue solved by the relatively wide breadth of songwriting and structural directions on Along the Way and the synth-soaked hyperneon approach of Vision Upon Purpose; as the back-half of an otherwise acoustic record, these feel closer to bonus tracks than a meaningful contribution.
The ultimate takeaway is one of slight frustration. There is not a song on the record without its merits, and track by track its pleasant on the ear. As it stands, many of the acoustic pieces feel like very compelling sketches of tracks that we didn’t receive. Which is the ultimate frustration; that Ideas of Beginnings, fittingly, teases a remarkably gorgeous new direction for McGuire, one wishes deeply by the end of the record for him to be brave enough to take.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.